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It isn’t over until it’s over

It isn’t over until it’s over

In younger years and decades, I read a lot of Clive Barker. One of his most famous stories is In the Hills, the Cities. This is about a contest between two cities, who build increasingly higher figures or monsters – made out of their citizens – year on year. Until one year, one of the figures starts to fall apart. Like a lot of Clive Barker’s writing, the story is not for the faint of heart. But I’m reminded of it this year in particular, watching the structures of the US Democrat and Republican parties do their scheduled battle, with the latter “choosing” Trump and the unravelling which, to a degree, is now happening…

Audience

My lifelong fascination and interest with, and visits to, things American continues. Politics has always been predominant, and the experience of traveling 7,000 miles by Amtrak during the run-up to the 2008 US election – and being in Chicago on election day [1] [2] [3] – will be something I won’t forget.

And thus I’ve followed the current US election campaign since pretty much the 2014 mid-terms. That’s two unpredictable, often-bizarre, strange, extreme and tumultuous years, even by US election standards. From the dozen and more Republican candidates, to Scott Walker flaming out, Bernie vs Hillary, the rise of Trump and his opponents and detractors not taking him seriously until it is, or was, too late – all of it. Much of this I’ve done through MetaFilter which is a better online community than most (quite possibly all) for this kind of thing, especially as Twitter turns increasingly toxic, and people build increasingly walled silos around their presence on Facebook.

And the “journey”, as my arty friends are prone to label it, is nearly at an end for us all. Early voting has begun – quite a while now in some states – and the full election day is just fifteen days away. Hopefully, the result will come quickly, and it will be for (Hillary) Clinton – and not for (Donald) Trump.

Dispenser of goodness

Hopefully.

I’m not convinced it will be, nor am I taking this for granted. Part of this is how the Brexit vote went here in Albion, which has … yeah I’d rather talk about that for a while as I’m still angry and I doubt I will ever forgive or reconcile with various attributes of the referendum and its slow-motion ramifications. Part of this is why Americans vote the ways that they do; something oft-unfathomable to non-Americans, but makes sense – a lot of sense – if you are from certain backgrounds and spend a fair bit of time there amongst a variety of demographics. Something for another day, amidst the realization that if I hadn’t chosen to escape my upbringing background and head in an academic direction, I would probably have been a Brexit/Trump supporter and voter.

But part of my worry, perhaps pessimism, with this US election is a whole stack of plausible reasons why Trump may just win this, even though the polls are apparently showing him some way behind. These include (but are not limited to) some combination of:

  1. Voter complacency – I am so bored, annoyed, irritated by seeing variations on “Hillary has got this” when the votes have not been counted and we are still over two weeks away from when most people vote. It also infuriates as some pro-Hillary people may decide not to vote if they keep reading this statement, either because of practical difficulties (US voting, especially on election day, can be a non-trivial exercise) or sheer laziness.
  2. Protest votes, either to a third-party candidate (which is fair enough) or to Trump (which is … oh do go and do one). “Fight the system! Go for a non-politician! Someone from outside the Beltway can clean up Congress!” If you think Trump will magically make the system “better”, then I have some fairy dust to sell you.
  3. The fear of voter intimidation – usually by the more fanatical Trump supporters – keeping Clinton supporters away.
  4. Actual voter intimidation – a high-profile incident or two, either during early voting or early on election day itself, won’t help.
  5. (my main concern) A terrorist incident (or an incident perceived to be a terrorist incident, which is a little different), by agents unknown or ambiguous, conveniently close to election day. This would give Trump a convenient platform to say “If I am president, then I will [some draconian policy against non-white or non-American people] whereas Hillary will do nothing”, possibly gaining some kind of last-minute surge.
  6. Something caused by an overseas agent with the means e.g. Putin, or a fugitive hiding in an Embassy broom cupboard, or a combination of the two, or other.
  7. And speaking of Putin, a wildcard international event which has an influence on the electorate e.g. Russia forces a land corridor to Crimea or causes problems in Narvia (Estonia), or North Korea fires a long-range missile which actually works.
  8. Some kind of anti-Hillary thing that sounds big and serious in simplistic mass media headlines, but on any kind of reasonable examination, has no substance behind it. The damage has been done with wavering and low-information voters by then, though.
  9. (my other main concern) Ridiculously long lines (and more) and many other shenanigans in predominantly Democrat-voting areas on election day, caused by the many tricks that can be, and are, pulled by the Republicans who run various operations at state level (itself an issue caused by Democrats doing poorly in recent mid-term elections, but that’s a different point).
  10. Ill health, either actual or greatly exaggerated in the right-wing press, making some voters reluctant to cast theirs for a candidate who may not see out a term in office. Always a risk when your candidate is 68 or 70 years old, but as we get closer to election day, this probability decreases.
  11. Voting apparatus which may be vulnerable to being compromised.

There are other reasons and concerns, of differing weighting and probability, a few of which I’d rather not write publicly because repercussions. Those listed above are enough to be getting on with.

At this point I am not confident. At best, it feels like it will be close, especially remembering that the Electoral College can give a false impression of how votes are cast nationally. For example, Florida, with its large net of EC votes, was won by Obama by a very small margin in 2012; a loss there and in a few other close states and the US would currently be coming to the end of President Romney’s first term. 270 to win, and all of the candidates start on zero.

School pupil project

Will Trump actually win, then? I don’t know. No-one really does. A US presidential election is pretty much a pre-scheduled war between two opposing political party structures (and a bunch of other oft-floaty people), which takes place across tens of thousands of local “battlefields”. Voter registrations, identifications, lobbying, campaigning, getting out the vote, suppressing and hindering the oppositions vote, and a myriad of other tactics and issues come into play. Outside of the US, we usually see the national picture, with fleeting footage of the odd local battle or two. But it’s on those tens of thousands of local battlegrounds where the war is won or lost.

Anyway. I hope I am (very) wrong and am unduly pessimistic (still perhaps scarred by the life-changing experience of Brexit) and these six things happen:

  1. A clear and unchallengeable win for Hillary. She’s not perfect by a long way (and I would have preferred Elizabeth Warren), but in terms of experience and dealing with politics and politicians, there’s utterly no contest amongst the options, especially Hillary vs Donald. I still find it difficult to believe it came to this, but there you go, and you reap what you sow, Republicans.
  2. The Democrats take the Senate by a comfortable margin.
  3. Taking the House is too much to hope for, but a significant reduction in the Republican majority would be good.
  4. Iowa votes for Hillary and not Donald, for personal and affectionate reasons for the state in the USA which most felt like “home” out of the 29 I’ve so far visited.
  5. The percentage by which the Republican POTUS candidate takes Texas is severely reduced. Because that, more than most things, will cause utter panic amongst the Republican machinery.
  6. The indictment(s) I hope are waiting to be served, but currently aren’t because doing so on a US presidential candidate close to an election is just too hot, are served. Payback time, both literally and figuratively.

Yeah.

Pig sale

After the election – assuming it goes well for the Democrats – there’s two years before what appears to be a tough 2018 set of mid-term elections to get some things done. These must include sorting out the Supreme Court, and simply making it easier for people to vote (or, more difficult for people to be hindered in the act of voting). There’ll be a whole load of other big things to sort out (e.g. the increasing effects of climate change, the largely unresolved issues around US rural poverty, the largely unresolved US healthcare erm system, trade negotiations with a post-brexit UK, and did I mention Putin?) so it’ll be an interesting time for the new POTUS and their probably quite important and much-younger VP.

Also, I hope Michelle and Barack have a seriously long and good break from the artificial and 24/7 life of the White House bubble, because after the last eight years, heck, they deserve and need it.

Good luck on election day.

A plate of deep fried oreos

(Pictures from the county fair in Grinnell, Iowa, 2015)

Summer of 2015

Summer of 2015

My on-off personal project to sort out the colossal mess of online “stuff” is back in “on” mode. And with it, here’s some digital ephemera from the summer just gone. First up, the Flickr set of 260 pictures.

This was my third entire summer in the USA, this time stretching from early May to early August. Apart from being bookended by a few days in Chicago, pretty much all of this was spent in central, and rural, Iowa. As with previous summers, it was also an opportunity to celebrate my inner American in a place where that’s an okay thing to do.

And it was splendid. As is every long trip in, or around, the USA. Much good food was eaten, many walks undertaken – several hundred miles over the three months, but curiously no politicians were encountered.

Unlike four years ago, when I kept literally tripping over them here (“Oh, hi, erm, you must be Rick Santorum.” Cue long awkward silence.) I managed to not see any this time round. Partially this was due to timing; Rand Paul was in town shortly before I arrived, and Bernie Sanders, then Hillary Clinton, after I left. But partially this was also due to the weather; Mike Huckabee did an event (a “huddle”) in a pizza place about a mile from where I was, but as it was 95F AFTER SUNSET I was ugh no. A very hot walk to see a politician; nope. A very hot walk to have possibly a huddle with a sweaty politician with very dubious views; dear God nope.

So instead, I did the usual rural American things. This means the town 4th of July parade, complete with horses, a large man on a tractor, farmers on tractors, tractors leading tractors (the most rural American thing ever), BIG VEHICLES, old vehicles, bands on trailers, patriotism, progressive flags, more flags, chairs, kids on bikes, and so forth.

The hound remained unmoved.

And also the county fair, and I am drawn to rural American county fair, out of a potent mixture of curiosity, nostalgia and a feeling of belonging. There are school pupil displays and art shows which possibly make some urban liberals a little alarmed. A van sells deep fried confectionary; we tried the oreos, and they were nom. And then there was the pig auction, and the culture and people around it, which made me remember and yearn for the good parts of a life long ago lived past. It’s interesting, being – and quietly being proud of being – a liberal rural redneck at heart. And I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing tech stuff and in a different world, now.

Oh, and trains. I ache for the sight of American trains and have done since primary school (future anecdote). Here’s waiting for one:

Therefore much of the summer was a quiet and rural summer, and I got on with work, and let events and drama and the like unfold elsewhere as I gradually removed myself from social media and networks and fighty-online-circles and the like. And got on with the simple pleasures of yardwork (mowing the American lawn, picking berries off a magic raspberry bush that forever produced fruit, removing corpses of dead wildlife) which, combined with the walking, led to losing ten pounds in weight. So, yay.

Also, hunting fireflies…

Which leads to the videos embedded into this post. No oscar-winning stuff. Here’s the last few seconds of the July 4th fireworks in smalltown Iowa; I didn’t bother trying to film the rest because, well, I was (mostly) either eating or enjoying the fireworks:

What else? Oh, eating – I’ve probably mentioned that already – so much eating, such as at familiar places, discovering the awesomeness that is the pork tenderloin, eating at a country inn, and the peanut butter milkshake. Oh, and Pizza Ranch (the best ranch)(hell yeah), and Marshalltown for Mexican food – and this was the best Mexican meal I have ever had, cream soda and barfood, produce at the farmers market, local brunch, daily specials, chinese-on-pizza, more brunch, root beer floats made by master baker, a ridiculous sandwich, a near-impulse-purchase of a lot of chicken, more Chinese, and so many more good things.

Also napping, because I am no longer young.

And watching Americans get genuinely excited – but without the nastiness, corruption, prejudice and violence of “supporting” the mens game in some other countries – as their team progressed and won at the association football thing. I could possibly get to like this particular form of the game. Maybe:

But most of all, those walks in rural Iowa. In the daytime, at dusk, under a big sky, past baseball, at sunset, and by mushroom circles, cornfields and buzzing fireflies.

Always, the fireflies.

That was a good summer.

The fifteen hundred

The fifteen hundred

There was an era in U.S. political life “that began with Ronald Reagan, where there was a conservative dominance powered by conservative voters and Southern whites,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “That era is over.


You know those news stories of religious cults, approaching a day of judgement where they are convinced that they will ascend to some form of heaven, leaving all the unbelievers behind? And they gather on the anointed day, often in some place in an American desert (Utah seems particularly appropriate). And right to the end, they believe that they are correct and everyone else is wrong.

And the time passes. And they don’t go to heaven, but just stand there, all upset, some in denial, many angry, some forever angry, some crying ‘lies’, some broken, some think they have been cheated, some blaming it on a lack of faith and action, some rearranging the date according to a hastily-justified reason, and some bewildered why the non-believers “just don’t get it”.

That was the core of the Republican party on election night. Cue Karl Rove in disbelieving mood. Cue the disbelieving party workers and Romney faithful in Boston. Cue the many viewers of Fox News, now spewing out angry disbelief on the comments sections of a thousand online news reports, and warning that the apocalypse is now upon us and the country is doomed and it’s all the fault of the non-believers, those strange unbelieving liberals who seem inexplicably angry with the prophecy of an imminent Conservative heaven.

Flag-waving "Patriots"

Their day, their moment, of judgement did not come. They weren’t transported to a land of low taxes, no medical cover, abortion or gay rights, ruled by a mean-sounding and uncomfortably white God. They’re still in the USA, a country still beset by significant problems – many of its own making – but one that is slowly, gradually becoming more racially and sexually accepting and socially liberal. More fair.

For them, the cult members, this is not pretty. And on the other, European side of the Atlantic, some rejoice and many are relieved while others, often intolerant extremists from the left who are boringly determined to be miserable about anything and everything Americana, whine about the result to the annoyance of more rational Americans. Maybe there is something in the horseshoe theory after all.

And for some of these more rational people watching from near or far away, it’s weird, this post-election feeling. A mixture of relief, fear, trepidation and exhaustion. The analysis of how Obama won – and why Romney lost, and lost an election many thought they could and should have won – is underway in a myriad of media, political centers, and television studios and smoke-filled back offices across America. The excuses from the losers – careful to point the blame at everyone except themselves – have begun. And so this experiment to change the Presidency by subtly and not-so-subtly brainwashing a significant proportion of the richest country in the history of mankind and throwing a billion dollars at an election, is over. As is a multi-level campaign featuring some of the most hateful and negative electioneering for a while, both widely known and not so widely known.

And, for a complex set of inter-related reasons that people are figuring out, it failed.

US Constitution

Good. And many good moments came out of the election. Possibly one of the most satisfying was the story of the damaging 47% video, shot at a private Romney event ($50,000 a pop to attend) where he dismissed that proportion of the population for allegedly never paying tax, living off handouts and always voting for Obama. And why was this video reveal particularly satisfying? Because the Republican Party, and Romney in particular, had spent many years castigating Jimmy Carter, the 1976 to 1980 US President. And the person who brought the video to the attention of the mass media and voters … was his grandson. A typically American twist of justice.

But the enduring struggle which maybe defines America, and what it means to be an American, goes on.

This ridiculously newly reborn country, where people alive today have watched a witness to Lincoln’s assassination describing it on TV. Where the last verified widow of a civil war veteran died just four years ago. And where the grandchildren of the tenth president, who took office in 1841, are still alive and farm. Heck, it’s less than four hundred years – which is nothing in European or Chinese historical terms – since the Mayflower arrived, had to winter out at sea and half the passengers died.

From here in the “old world”, post-colonial America sometimes seems almost too comically young, like a third grade schoolboy trying to buy beer, to call itself a country.

But it’s managed to pack a lot of turbulence, expansion, internal and external conflict, into those few hundred years. As well as, or possibly resulting in, staggering progress, the only country in history to go from the basic survival of newly arrived immigrants to safely putting its own citizens on the surface of another world within three and a half centuries. That’s pretty damned impressive. But is it the perpetual struggle between the religious and the humanist, the republican and the democrat, the farmer and the land, the homeowner and the tornado, the north and the south, the native and the settler, the free and the enslaved, the President and Congress, which defines America? If these struggles, endless and enduring, somehow ended, would this remove the character, identity which is America? I’m not sure.

But there’s one definite thing about America. It can be, often is, a peaceful and relaxed and above all a friendly place, even though it is always at conflict within itself. This perpetual conflict; maybe it’s the lack of post-colonial history, with only fifteen or so generations since the first Europeans walked off the boat into an already populated land, and stayed there. Maybe it’s because the underlying issues, feelings and prejudices which culminated in the civil war are not wholly resolved.

Or maybe it’s because the Declaration of Independence explicitly, optimistically and positively, tells the citizens of the country to go in the pursuit of happiness. Or maybe it’s because much of the Constitution, although written a mere ten generations ago, is open to interpretation, misinterpretation and re-interpretation. Or maybe it’s because within a single digit number of generations of that document, a period of almost impossible growth and advance, the country somehow managed to become the most powerful (in good and not so good ways) in history.

Even now, like unexpected volcanic eruptions off the coast of Iceland spewing out new lands, the United States of America is rapidly changing in terms of population, land mass, size. The lower 48 only became as such a century ago, with the 1912 additions of Arizona and New Mexico. In 1968, when I was born, the population was 200 million. In the 44 years since then, just a couple of generations and 11 presidential elections later, it’s increased to 315 million. Soon, another star may be added to the flag as Puerto Rico moves towards joining the union. (How cool is that? One nation, stretching from the eastern Caribbean to Alaska) Understanding America is difficult because of this constant, rapid, change. Even some of those born and living there, such as many of those Republicans from earlier in the week convinced to the end that America would vote “their man” in on a landslide, miss or don’t understand the rapid changes.

old glory. venice beach, ca. 2012.

And a lot can, and does, change in America during a lifetime. Even in just a few years. In 1,500 days, the country will have dealt (or not dealt) with the fiscal cliff, more hurricanes, economic turbulence, incidents, tragedies and triumphs of almost Shakespearian drama. And it will have voted and decided on (so long as Florida gets its act together) a new president-elect, waiting for inauguration while President Obama sees out the last few weeks of his two terms. Who that president-elect will be no-one knows, but the speculation across the media and the campaigning seems to be well underway.

And beyond 2016, who knows? Perhaps the American political dynasties of the last century will re-emerge; more likely than you may think. Hillary (Clinton) may run in 2016, win, and be re-elected in 2020. Though not yet a politician, her (and Bill’s) daughter, Chelsea Clinton, is racking up media and political experience. Don’t rule out another of Jimmy Carter’s grandchildren, Jason Carter, recently re-elected to the Georgia State Senate. There’s also plenty of Roosevelt’s around, a few of whom are active in politics. Then there’s George Bush. Yes, another one, except this one is the son of Jed, nephew of George Dubya, is half-Latino, speaks fluent Spanish, and is already nicknamed ’47 in relation to which US President he may become.

And finally, this election has also brought a new Kennedy into the House, Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, the grandson of Bobby. He looks like a Kennedy, really like his Grandfather, and talks like one, and is starting to campaign like one. Unlike his Grandfather, he can use social media to promote, and has a twitter account with (at the moment) a mere seven thousand followers. I have a good, hopeful, feeling that, as the next few presidential cycles roll by, we may start to hear a lot more about Joe at the level of US presidential candidate…

The drama and the change and the struggle that is America, continues.

I love the place, and its people, dearly. One day, I’ll be one.

Storms over Lake Michigan

Storms over Lake Michigan

It was a few years ago, now. More recent than many of the other adventures I’d had in America, but still disappearing into the cognitively dusty corner of things done in the past. Some memories, most memories, fade, but some memories are sharp enough to endure.

I’d been dating H. It wasn’t good. The hot summer in the rust belt, and the previous baggage we’d both brought to the relationship, had stifled it pretty quickly. She was coming back to England with me. We both knew this was a mistake, but neither of us wanted to say. Eventually, we were both proved right.*

Her mom and her partner had a trailer. No, they weren’t the stereotypical rednecks – they also had a house – but this was a trailer in some kind of middle class holiday park, in northern Indiana. It was ridiculously big; and comfortable, with “all mod cons” and places to sleep, and a large TV on which reruns of Top Gear could be watched by Americans easily amused at the comedic value of British men. Back in my own country, I’ve lived in smaller apartments.

As I said, it wasn’t good between me and H. That’s in the past – the receeding past, thankfully – and it’s unlikely we’ll ever speak again, especially when I’ve published all of the memories that are emerging, some years in the future when it’s more appropriate. And speaking was something we weren’t good at doing anyway, even when we were together.

Aurora Over Lake Michigan

In the trailer park, I’d increasingly go off on my own to avoid talking. One evening I took the golf cart out, something I enjoyed doing on my own, less so with other people. It had cup holders, meant I didn’t have to exercise in any way, and therefore made me feel a little bit American.

The air was oppressive; hot and still that evening. The heat had been nudging 100 in the daytime, and the insects were feasting on my slowly cooking skin that week. Driving the golf cart gave a little relief; a slight and silent breeze.

I drove it to the entrance to the trailer park, on a few yards more, to the top of a rise. Not a big rise, but in Indiana, a rise is a rise. Feeling … something … I turned around.

To the northwest, the view swept over the border into Michigan. In the distance, far far into the distance, huge storm clouds, impossibly large thunder clouds, moved imperceptibly across the sky, like silent buffalo in great numbers, on the move. Lighting lit up random clouds, but no thunder rolled across Michigan and Indiana to where I sat in the golf cart, the storm was so distant.

I tried to work out where the clouds were, and realised that, with the distance, the storms were likely to be over Lake Michigan, moving out of Chicago, trundling towards Canada. But here I was, in Indiana, close to the border with Ohio, watching storms sweep across a lake so vast that you sail on it and soon lose sight of the shore from where you came. A lake larger than countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium or the Netherlands. A lake which I’d swam in several times, watched fireworks fall into, and pottered around on, in boats. To an Englishman, used to tiny lakes not much bigger than ponds, and a gap from his birth country to continental Europe much narrower than Lake Michigan, the scale of this unobstructed panorama woke me from my evening heat slumber. And woke me from the place I’d retreated to, inside myself, that summer.

Solitude

I watched the silent lightning and wondered; were there boats on the lake? Under the storm? Being battered by large waves, and worked desperately like Truman Burbank trying to keep the Santa Maria afloat? Ships heading for safe harbour, in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Benton or Evanston?

That was the America I was looking for. The big sky; the big country; liberty defined in a thousand ways, but an important one being that with wheels and cheap gasoline, you can drive in the same direction for hours, days, and still be in the same country. Where a quick trip to your favorite restaurant for dinner can be a hundred miles or more. And train journeys between major cities are sometimes measured, not in minutes or hours, but in days and nights. A landmass so big, many people go a lifetime and never see the edges.

Only a third of Americans have passports, I’d read in the paper. True or not, it suddenly seemed plausible; the place was so big, endless, rolling, why go elsewhere when there’s much still to see here? I’d only experienced this feeling of scale before in Scandinavia, the overwhelming size of the fjords of Norway, the coastline that seems unimaginably long, the hundreds of thousands of islands, and the endless roads through the snowy northern European landscape. Nowhere else, apart from here in America, had a landscape this epic.

I drove back to the trailer before the golf cart battery drained completely. No-one had noticed that I’d gone; symbolic, obviously, of the dying relationship that would unfortunately stagger on for another half year.

And that is my most vivid, persistent and positive memory of that relationship (for even out of the worst ones, some good things usually come). Ironically, an event in which I’d found a near-perfect moment, but in solitude. Watching lightning and storms, from an American state away, move slowly across an inland sea. And understanding a mixture of emotions of calmness, liberty and freedom that come with watching a natural display of this scale, this distance and this grandeur.

* Update: August 28th 2012

Having said that, things did work out well – eventually – several years down the line, though in odd ways involving social media, patience, mistakes and regret, cheese and other things. If I hadn’t been tweeting, blogging and whatever else that summer from Ohio and Indiana, they may not have. Guess social media has its upsides, after all.

Rick Santorum is fascinating

Rick Santorum is fascinating

At which point, British liberal friends say “Who?” and my American liberal friends say “OMG why John, why, we thought you were one of us?”

Because he’s a Conservative American politician and he’s doing between okay and well in the quest to become the Republican presidential candidate this year, despite having hardly any infrastructure or team or funding compared to Mitt Romney. And I’ve met and chatted with him. And, think I get why he’s doing well.

Also. I like going to meetings where people of a different political persuasion speak. “Know thy enemy to defeat him”, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s because an event where everyone agrees with everyone else gets plain boring. Challenge is good, brings debate. Agreement in a like-minded echo chamber brings … sleep?

I’m a European socialist and liberal in the Scandinavian sense – though with some libertarian leanings, especially on defense – who believes in equality. I agree with Rick on not tying a currency to the gold standard; but on just about every other political issue he’s spoken about, it’s disagreement time. Often extreme disagreement. His views are about as opposite to mine as it is possible to get. On contraception, the separation of church and state, taxation, federal medical care, on … just about everything, I can’t agree with him and probably never will, even if he softened his position.

But here’s the odd thing. There’s a part of me that perhaps oddly admires his political journey this last half year, and there’s also a situation where I’d vote for him. Before my liberal friends stop reading and collectively delete me from all social media “friend” or “follow” lists, hear me out.

I met Rick last August in Grinnell, Iowa. It was months before the state GOP caucus, and before the Ames Straw Poll, a somewhat poisoned chalice where the winner gets a brief moment of fame in the media, and then quickly burns out. Michelle Bachmann won that, then plummeted in the GOP polls and quit the race not that long afterwards.

At the time, Rick was on less than 1% in the polling. In the TV debates, he’d be the one right on the side, not getting any questions as the interviewer focused on whoever was the Republican flavor of the month / week / day. His campaign had pretty much no money. However, his style of campaigning involved going from small town to small town, speaking at every small hall and library around. He spent many days “on the ground”, and eventually went to every one of Iowa’s counties. And, unlike Bachmann who also visited every county, but in just a few days and with extremely brief stops in each, Rick took several hours out at each stop to give his speech and answer – in surprising detail and length – questions put to him.

Rick Santorum

He turned up at Grinnell (the only other Republican candidate who went there was Tim Pawlenty) and I wandered along to the event, expecting there to be a crowd of dozens, maybe a hundred or more people crammed into the room at the public library. Um, there wasn’t – I got there a little early and was the first one. I chatted to his organiser, an enthusiastic and pleasant Iowa student of politics. And a few other people, and Rick turned up. Shook his hand, chatted briefly and awkwardly, I think mostly about Iowa cuisine on which he’d become an expert of late. He picked up on my European-ess, and commented on it.

The room sort of filled a bit, but the attendees peaked at less than twenty, to be outnumbered by the media and Rick’s family at one point. Rick’s style of speaking was to give a long monologue, with no notes, on his campaign, his beliefs, on Obama, on the state of America, on how Europe had gone very wrong (he glanced over at me a few times while saying that; I smiled back) and how America should not go that way.

And his policies, which are now widely known, not just nationally across America, but internationally. I started, then stopped live-tweeting the event, as DMs from British followers were sceptical about whether these were honest tweets (yes) or made up. I’ve never heard rhetoric at an event like it. (Thinks) actually … not true. When living in the Outer Hebrides for half a decade, at funerals and other obligatory community services, the minister would sometimes veer off into fire and brimstone rhetoric. There’s not much as surreal as being at a funeral and the minister informing everyone that they will burn in hell.

And that’s not far off Rick’s message. Which is also that the best status for a woman is barefoot and pregnant, contraception is wrong, anything apart from a heterosexual relationship is wrong, Europeans are lazy which is why their economies are wrecked, Iran should be attacked, and that wealth inequality is a good and necessary thing.

But it was the reaction of the audience that was the most interesting. The older the member of the audience, the more vocal they spoke in favor of, and to, Rick. One lady who must have been 80, if not a lot older, had a mini-rant about the evils of “socialistic Obama policies”. Seniors nodded and muttered agreement when Rick argued for “Obamacare” to be repealed, as I sat there and thought “Hang on; aren’t you some of the main beneficiaries of medicare and medicaid? Especially you there, in the front row, in your federal funded electric wheelchair?”

Press

Rick spoke for over an hour. Then he took questions; any questions, and didn’t duck any. His minder / driver pointedly looked at his watch. Then it finished. One lady who’d been sitting at the back said to him:

“I don’t agree with what you said, but I appreciate you coming to our town and putting your case and beliefs forward.”

Her companion agreed with her. And that’s part of why Rick is popular, and picking up votes, with many people.

  1. He puts the effort in, and goes to the places which other candidates think are “not worth it”. Locals appreciate this.
  2. When he’s there, he doesn’t do a five minute script then gets back onto a plane, but talks and answers questions at length. The other candidates don’t, apart from Ron Paul sometimes.
  3. He’s vocally honest about what he believes in. To the extent that his campaign is unusual. Pick an issue; any issue. Do you honestly know how Mitt Romney will act on this issue if/when he becomes president? No. Mitt tailors his response to the audience and situation. Whereas Rick has probably come out with an unambiguous policy on the issue, even if it is one which most Americans will not agree with.

Those three things add up to the “Protestant Work Ethic” and basic honesty of opinion that appeals to a lot of Americans. Especially in places such as rural Iowa. That’s from Republican voters I’ve chatted to there, and it’s obviously getting him a lot of votes.

It’s also his honesty of opinion – combined with that opinion being extreme on issues such as sexuality – that has made Rick such a controversial person. If you don’t know why, Google Santorum. When you’ve recoiled from this, find out why it came about. This is also why many in the US media are enjoying this, seeing how frequently they can use the phrase “Santorum surge” to summarise his current polling popularity, as well as fronting other innuendo such as this article title. And we thought the Brits were best at smut?

But seriously, it is a bizarre situation, when a candidate says things hostile to a woman’s ability to choose contraception, or even what to do in the most extreme of situations…

…but many women still want to vote for him to be president. This clip from the Daily Show is a good analysis of his frank approach.

So I admire him for his (bizarrely politically suicidal) honesty and his work rate. But at the same time, I am appalled by his policies. After his event, I took a cookie offered by his daughter and went back into the library proper to borrow his book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. I managed to get a quarter of the way through it before realising … I just could not read any more. Too much, in a bad way; if Rick became president, it would be bad for America, especially for anyone who wasn’t a rich white male, and bad the world. I wouldn’t like to be a woman, relying on health care and in a low paid job, in Rick’s America.

So there’s a situation where I’d vote for Rick?! I do not believe he will be the Republican candidate for several reasons. The main one being that he is unelectable in the presidential election proper, as independents and lots of other demographics will vote to keep him out. The GOP hierarchy know that Mitt Romney is far more electable against Obama, and will ensure that Mitt is the candidate, no matter what. I’m expecting Mitt to take Michigan and Arizona – the latter by a wide margin – this tuesday, and most of the primaries on Super Tuesday. It’s inconceivable that the wider Republican Party and Conservative coalition will let any other situation occur.

Also, because of his strategy Rick has done well in the caucuses but badly in the primaries. Unfortunately, the contorted nature of the process means that those caucus wins will not translate to many conference delegates (most may go to Ron Paul) and it’s quite possible that come the Republican Party convention in August, Santorum will have “won” many more states than Paul but have fewer delegates (think of them as bargaining chips). There are other reasons, but I’m sticking with my prediction that Mitt Romney will be the Republican Party candidate, and will win the presidency in November 2012. Even though I don’t want that to happen.

So if I was an eligible voter, and if I was in a state with a caucus or an open primary (where you don’t have to be a registered Republican to vote), I would vote for Rick. Not because I want him to win. But because every vote against Romney, and especially every state he loses, destabilizes him a little bit. And Romney, and the supporting SuperPACs, have to pour more of their finite money into the Republican race, leaving them with less to fight Obama in the autumn. Unfair tactics? No. It’s legal, and both parties push the legality of what they can do as far as they can.

But to reassure my liberal chums, if any have not given up in disgust and are still reading this, come the presidential election proper, no matter what there would only be one vote for me (if I could vote):

Obama 2012 Rally—New York City, June 23rd, 2011

I still believe in hope. And a Barack Obama, used to the mechanisms of presidency and free from compromising to get re-elected, could have a much more progressive second term than his first.

If he wins in November…

Where liberty is, there is my country

Where liberty is, there is my country

You know an image affects you when you keep returning to look at it “one more time”. And wandering around on Flickr, there’s one image I keep returning to. The photographer has given permission for it to be used here; you can find it yourself on Flickr, or click on the image for the larger version:

Chatting to the photographer, and looking around her Flickr pictures, reveals some connections. Maryann is a school librarian in the midwest, currently “teaching my students how to find material in the library and how to use the online catalog”. The picture was taken in Iowa, while she was cycling RAGBRAI. That’s an annual cross-state biking event that stops overnight in Grinnell, which (from my non-cyclist, resident, perspective) results in lots of temporary new food options.

The picture is pure Iowa, a US state to be enjoyed for the wide open prairie outside. It’s filled, as Iowa seems to be, with sky and corn – tall corn. A barn emerges from the corn, the symbol of western European-immigrant rural settlement, work, and living off the land. Outside the barn, the unmistakably potent identity marker of the country, the stars and stripes, an emblem I’ve been obsessed with since touching the earliest surviving incarnation of it in the village church before being old enough to speak. Christened John after JFK, and with a thousand cultural references and influences permeating every aspect of living for the last 43 years, America feels like its run through my veins since birth. A complex picture of why I “feel” more American than British/English is starting to come clear.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the cooler founding fathers. He advocated tolerance for all churches, freed “his” slaves and became an abolitionist. He was interested in, well, just about everything, but specialised in science, diplomacy and nationality. Benjamin formed the first public lending library in America through his book donation, and was the first US postmaster general, helping to form the first national communication infrastructure. Benjamin was pretty much the Tim Berners-Lee of the age, 200 years before the Internet.

The phrase “Where liberty is, there is my country” is interesting, liberty being an ever-debated principle that underpins the USA, from Lincoln’s “Conceived in liberty” Gettysburg address and before, through to the current 2012 presidential race. The concept weaves its way through many of the books I’ve been reading these last three year on American politics, society, history and rural culture, as well as what’s being said when listening to American politicians, Democrat and Republican, speak. It’s a strange country, when the European immigrant history and national formation is so very recent but is still so argued over. A quarter of that time has been spent travelling through, and living, there; three years ago today was spent on an Amtrak train heading up the west coast towards Seattle, as part of a 7,000 loop around the western half of the country.

When Becky and myself buy our first place together (hopefully something like this), this picture, large and framed, will be going on the wall. It’s good to see, a reminder of the personally important things in life. (Looks again) yeah; time to do some more writing and work my way back to the place that feels like home…

Pastries of the night

Pastries of the night

There’s a bakery and shop here in Grinnell which, as bakeries do, bakes stuff in the night and the early hours. Breads, cookies, cakes, pastries and all manner of things. It’s small, but rather good, and we’ve bought stuff from there several times before.

Sunset

This bakery is a little different in that if you go round the back from 2am onwards, and the owner is in there baking, he’ll sell you stuff that’s hot, or warm, out of the oven. Students (old enough to drink) especially take advantage of this, as the bakery is on the way back to campus from several of the bars. So I gave it a try tonight.

Grinnell isn’t the busiest of places in the middle of the day. In fact there’s only one stretch of one road where you sometimes have to wait to cross, and that during the rush hour. Downtown, which is a thriving four block business area, is quiet in the daytime – and deserted at night:

Downtown, 2am

2am rolled around, and the shop front of the bakery was unlit. Went round the back and bingo; the baker was happily rolling dough. He remembered me from six weeks ago; he was the first Grinnell person I’d met and spoken to, which was cool. And he had various racks of pastries and cakes ready, some of them warm and therefore recently out of the oven.

Purchases were made, and pleasantries exchanged. And if Becky looks inside the kitchen breadbin before she leaves for work in four and a half hours, she’ll find her present of:

Fresh out the bakery

:)

American Gothic reimagined

American Gothic reimagined

American Gothic 2011 Unrated Edition

And as the summer draws to a close, we continued our trips around the awesome state of Iowa. First impressions were of several thousand square miles of corn and precious little else, but perceptions are deceptive. There’s a lot in Iowa, if you look for it; more on this in future posts.

The best thing we’ve done here so far? Visited the house that Grant Wood painted in the iconic, and much parodied, American Gothic. The original painting…

American Gothic

…hangs in Chicago, but the actual house is in the town of Eldon, in the south of Iowa. Eldon has … not very much else, publicising the house in some way or other in two signs out of three around the place. From the main roads, follow the signs down various back streets, until the house comes into view.

Things we noticed when we turned up:

  • The house is surprisingly small
  • The visitor center nearby is several time larger
  • It doesn’t get visited much; just a few other people there, on a Saturday, when we were.

House

The house itself is lived in, rented out to someone who occasionally makes and sells pies. No tours inside, and signs to respect privacy, but you can get pretty close up to it.

The visitor center has a heap of exhibitions and a lot of contextual history about the house. But, best of all, they have friendly staff and a bunch of clothes you can put on to dress up like the folk (actually the painters dentist and sister) in the picture. Right down to the pitchfork, and the rather strong 1930s glasses.

So it was on with the clothes, and outside with our respective cameras.

Dressing up

And here’s the end result. The Systems Librarian of Grinnell College on the left, and me with the pitchfork, looking dour. Or hardworking. Or paternal. Or stern. Or, keeping a fixed frown as people of that era did, being dissuaded from smiling for primitive photography due to the long exposure time.

American Gothic

The visitor center, and having your picture taken, are free; donations welcome. More on their website. Eldon itself is 80 miles away from Grinnell. Enjoy.

Blue Highways

Blue Highways

My favourite non-fiction book. And the answer to the “What one possession would you take with you if your house was on fire?” question. The author is also the person, if I could pick one, I want to be.

I’ve been fascinated, obsessed, delirious, about America since I could speak and read, possibly before. My earliest memory was of watching man – an American – land on the moon, being too young to understand the excitement of a packed room of people watching a tiny, flickering television.

rural road

Every influence, from Coca Cola bottles to West Side Story, the speeches of JFK (who my parents named me after), the Stars and Stripes and the Star Spangled Banner, the movies of the Coen brothers and the journalism of the Washington Post, Seinfeld and The Wire, the optimism and a thousand influences in between, flow through me. That growing realisation that I’m an American, born in the wrong country.

I’ve had a few adventures, briefly, in America. But the adventure, the journey – and it is always the journey, not the destination – that William Least Heat-Moon describes in this book, is over four hundred pages of often transcendental observation and reflection, of America and the author, the writer, within America.

In Blue Highways, William found his life changing drastically in his late thirties, his ties gone, and took the opportunity to make a move, setting off with the bare minimum and copies of Leaves of Grass and Black Elk Speaks. He stuck to the back roads, the two lane tracks, and the small towns, people who’d never been interviewed, traveled, seen beyond their horizon but were content. Several thousand miles of traveling, and he repeatedly finds places and people he didn’t know existed; but perhaps more importantly he “learnt what he didn’t know he needed to know”.

Life as a back road in Iowa

The journey. It’s always about the journey. And there’s possibly no better place, physically and spiritually, to undertake the journey than America.

It’s a beautiful book I’ve read many times, and it smells and feels like a well-read and loved book.

Lines from a Navajo wind chant which close the book, and reminds of why we write:

Then he was told:
Remember what you have seen,
because everything forgotten,
returns to the circling winds.

The civility of the American

The civility of the American

Is it possible to watch something online and be simultaneously very happy and very jealous? Yes; today I was. Watching some of this webcam footage live, which the White House has put in the public domain.

White House

Watching the news it can be difficult at times to believe in the USA as a civilised and progressive country and society. The politics, as portrayed through television news, appear entrenched, angry, volatile and dangerous. Incidents, such as the recent shootings in Tucson, distress. News reports fill with individuals and crowds, commentators, angry, seemingly on the edge of violence. And it makes you think; here in the UK, especially in the current political and economic climate, there is a lot of anger and bitterness; see, for example, the recent protests over student debt.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But, we rarely violently attack politicians, or their families, or other high profile people here. We just … don’t. “That kind of thing happens in America, not here in Britain” is the standard view, especially of the older generations. So a viewer of the traditional news and media could reasonably assume that the USA is a country ‘divided’, with millions of people hating a group of millions of other people. Well, maybe not. TV news show the incidents, the controversy, the marches, and angry people angrily waving signs of varying degrees of literacy. Is it really like that, nationally? If you make a large and random selection of the public meet one of the most high profile people on one ‘side’ of the political ‘divide’, how many would get angry, or not be civil, or would generally be unpleasant.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

How about … hardly any of them?

Today was the second anniversary of the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. As an unexpected surprise, Michelle Obama and their dog, Bo, waited in the Blue Room of the White House to meet members of the public who were doing the tour. Cue lots of surprised Americans being suddenly met by Michelle saying “Hi!” or “Welcome to my house!”

Even better, this was all piped live through the White House website, so people online could watch what happened and how members of the public reacted. The White House set this up neatly, with one webcam focused on Obama and Bo, and the other on the entrance to the room at the point where visitors realise they’re about to meet the first lady.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

Considering that a significant portion of the population vote, or voted Republican, and with the Tea Party, the libertarians, and the aforementioned angry and divisive nature of the politics that we see, frequently, on the news, it was a relief and good to see that no-one refused to shake hands with Michelle (apart from the kid who was terrified of dogs and ran away from Bo), or was rude or dismissive to her.

And this wasn’t staged; watching this for quite a while, it was good to see people repeatedly shocked, then surprised, then delighted that they got to meet the first lady. How awesome is that?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And Michelle was actually … hugging … random members of the public(!) Seriously. Male, female, black, white, old and young. Physical contact? Here in England, politicians shake hands politely, kiss babies for the media on campaign trails, and that’s about it; it’s all very … restrained and repressed. You don’t … hug politicians and they don’t hug you. Royalty are even more distant; lightly put your hand on the Queen, even if you are prime minister of another country, and face the wrath of the media. All part, perhaps, of the class structure and the doffing of one’s hat or cap to your social and economic superiors?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But there, in America, the wife of the president of the United States is hugging random members of public. Some of whom appear to be in mild shock at this, while others, especially the schoolkids, jump up and down a bit. They will remember that day for the rest of their lives, when a visit to the White House turned into something unexpectedly else.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And watching Michelle meet hundreds of Americans (and tourists from other countries) today, all of whom were polite and friendly, is one of the many reasons I have a soft spot for America and politely ignore those who forever seek out the cynical angle. Despite what the traditional media try and repeatedly tell me otherwise. Most, nearly all, Americans – and I have met thousands over the decades, so this isn’t a random guess – when you meet them, are decent, friendly people who just want to get on in life without big controversy or anger.

And, though that may not make for dramatic news footage, seems fair enough.